July 26, 2007 — -- Wade Boggs batted at least .300 15 times, won five batting titles, earned a spot on 12 All-Star teams, won a World Series, finished with a .328 career average and sailed into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. So how do fans sometimes greet him in an airport?
"People will come up and say, 'Weren't you on "The Simpsons"?'" Boggs answered. "And I'll say, 'Yeah, among other things.'"
Ozzie Smith says the same thing happens to him. Which is understandable. After all, the Hall of Fame is filled with guys who hit homers but how many can say they played ball alongside Homer in the greatest episode ever of "The Simpsons"? The cartoon goes big screen this week but for many fans, the show reached its zenith 15 years ago with "Homer at the Bat," the episode in which Mr. Burns hires nine major league ringers to play for his nuclear plant softball team.
"Oh, God, I didn't realize how many people watched that show," Don Mattingly said. "All I heard at the stadium after that was 'Mattingly, I told you to shave those sideburns.' I still hear it."
Ken Griffey Jr. says that he only saw the episode once when the studio sent him a copy before it aired and that his kids have never seen it, which puts them in an even lonelier minority than if they owned a comic book store. After Mariners reliever Ryan Rowland-Smith made his major league debut last month against Griffey, the Australian pitcher said he was glad to face Junior because the outfielder was the only active player his friends back home would recognize. "And the only reason they would know him is because he was on 'The Simpsons' years ago," Rowland-Smith said. "If I gave them the name of any other superstar they wouldn't know him. But Griffey and Babe Ruth they would recognize."
Hell, the only way you could have missed "Homer at the Bat" is if Kang and Kodos abducted you before it aired and still have you imprisoned inside a cell on their spaceship. But if that is the case, just know that Mr. Burns signing all those big leaguers worked about as successfully as the Yankees signing Carl Pavano. Boggs gets in a fight with Barney at Moe's over who was Britain's greatest prime minister, Lord Palmerston or Pitt the Elder. Ozzie falls into a bottomless pit in the Springfield Mystery Spot. Mattingly is kicked off the team for not cutting his sideburns. Griffey's head swells from gigantism after drinking too much of Mr. Burns' "nerve tonic." Roger Clemens imagines he is a chicken after undergoing hypnosis. Mike Scioscia is hospitalized with acute radiation poisoning from working in the nuclear power plant.
Eventually, only Darryl Strawberry is able to play in the big game, replacing Homer in the outfield. (When Homer asks Strawberry whether the outfielder is better than him, he replies, "Well, I never met you before but ... yes.") Strawberry hits nine home runs but Mr. Burns chooses to "play the percentages" by pinch-hitting for him in the final inning, sending in the right-handed Homer against a left-handed pitcher with the score tied 43-43 and the bases loaded. Homer drives in the game-winning run when he is hit in the head with a pitch.
Even George Steinbrenner can't match the money of Monty Burns.(D'oh! Should have been a Spoiler Alert there.)
"Homer at the Bat" aired in February 1992 after the players had performed their voice-overs in the sound studio when they were in Los Angeles and Anaheim for games the previous season. "The weird thing," Mattingly said, is that he did his scene about Mr. Burns benching him for his long sideburns before the Yankees benched him for not getting a haircut in July 1991. "Everyone thought they wrote it in later but they didn't."
That haircut benching might have been the first case of the dreaded Simpsons' Curse that hit many of the players within a few seasons following the episode, striking as oddly as if they had stepped into the Springfield Mystery Spot. Boggs had the first sub-.300 season of his career the same season the episode aired. Jose Canseco was traded by Oakland that summer and threw out his arm pitching in a game the next season. Clemens had the first losing season of his career the year after the episode. Strawberry was arrested, suspended, entered rehab and developed cancer. Mattingly, Scioscia and Steve Sax all saw their talents decline enough that they retired by age 34.
Worse, all but Griffey, Scioscia and Ozzie wound up playing for the Yankees. (But then, doesn't everybody?)
Simpsons' creator Matt Groening told Sports Illustrated when "Homer at the Bat" came out that everyone involved with the show was heavily into rotisserie baseball. Evidently, because that isn't the only Simpsons baseball episode. In "Dancing Homer," a drunk Homer gets up on the dugout of an Isotopes game on "Nuclear Plant Employees, Spouses and No More Than Three Children Night" and fires up the crowd by dancing to "Baby Elephant Walk." Sensing a hit, the team owner credits Homer for the game-winning rally. Homer is hired to be the regular mascot and eventually is called up to the majors to sub for the Capital City Goofball. Naturally, he is fired from that gig.
"Somebody said the 'Dancing Homer' episode was the first episode that used the word 'ass,'" said Ken Levine, who co-wrote the episode after being inspired during his own stint broadcasting baseball games. "I don't know whether that's true but, if so, I'm very proud."
In "Brother's Little Helper," a paranoid Bart shoots down a satellite that Major League Baseball was using to spy on everyone. Mark McGwire, however, calms the public by landing in a helicopter and asking: "Do you want to know the terrifying truth, or do you want to see me sock a few dingers?"
The crowd's response: "Dingers! Dingers!"
(By the way, wouldn't it have been awesome had McGwire delivered the same line when he testified before Congress? Had he done so, he might be going into Cooperstown this weekend.)
There also is the episode in which Homer goes on a hunger strike to keep Albuquerque from stealing the Isotopes away from Springfield, an episode that inspired the real-life Triple-A Albuquerque franchise to change the team's nickname from Dukes to Isotopes.
(Not that a marketing technique so blatant as changing an established name to one from the Simpsons would ever catch on.)
Like so much that has made "The Simpsons" the best comedy series in TV history along with "Seinfeld," those moments are very good but none can top "Homer at the Bat," an episode as delectable as a plate full of donuts (mmmmmm ... donuts). In addition to the big league cameos, the episode is filled with great bits of dialogue, such as when the umpire goes over the ground rules before a game between the power-plant employees and the police:
Homer's exploits on and off the diamond have proven to be his signature moves."You can't leave first until you chug a beer. Any man scoring has to chug a beer. You have to chug a beer at the top of all odd-numbered innings. Oh, and the fourth inning is the beer inning."
Or the lyrics parodying Terry Cashman's "Talkin' Baseball":
Well, Mr. Burns had done it.The power plant had won it.With Roger Clemens clucking all the while.Mike Scioscia's tragic illness made us smile.While Wade Boggs lay unconscious on the barroom tile. We're talkin' ....Softball.From Maine to San Diego.Talkin' ... Softball.Mattingly and Canseco. Ken Griffey's grotesquely swollen jaw.Steve Sax and his run-in with the law.We're talkin' Homer ...Ozzie, and the Straw.
Scioscia said he had a great time doing the show and was impressed by the writers' creativity. On the other hand, "Hopefully, it won't be the defining moment of my career."
There are worse fates than being remembered for appearing on "The Simpsons," though. For one thing, you could get acute radiation poisoning from working in a nuclear power plant. Or worse, you could be remembered for your appearance on a show like "Mad About You."
BOXSCORE LINE OF THE WEEK
Nice weekend for the Devil Rays. They beat the Yankees 14-4 on Friday, which was the good news. The next two days didn't go quite so well. They allowed 53 hits. And 45 runs. And walked 15 batters. And hit two more. And committed five errors. And threw 540 pitches.
So there were a lot of ugly pitching lines in there, including this week's winner by Shawn Camp:
1 1/3 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 K, 3 HR
What makes that line so bad is that he gave up the nine hits in relief, not easy to do.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net, with more installments of "24 College Avenue." His new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is on sale now.